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Masahiro Tanaka faces his most important start with the Yankees

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In what could be his final start in pinstripes, Tanaka needs to come away with one of his best performances.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

We have another day before the Yankees and Indians face off in Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS, and it could be the last time we see Masahiro Tanaka in a Yankee uniform. The seven-year, $155 million deal he signed prior to the 2014 season has an opt-out clause that he can use after this season, and the Yankees have said they will not pursue Tanaka if he elects to go that route.

Tanaka’s career in pinstripes has been interesting. He came from Japan with loads of promise, and the hype seemed to be validated with every passing start in 2014, earning a trip to the All-Star Game and looking like a legitimate ace until an elbow injury prevented him from pitching for most of the remainder of the season. He remained effective in 2015, but his career took a positive turn with a stellar 2016 season. Then his 2017 campaign started off terribly, and despite a recovery in the second half, it’s hard to tell where things truly lie with him.

Now, in a crucial game at Yankees Stadium, in which the Yanks are fighting for their lives, they better hope Tanaka saved his best for last.

It is almost impossible to predict which version of Tanaka we will see on the mound in his second career postseason start. Will we see the Tanaka that was blasted in Toronto for eight runs on three homers in 5 2/3 innings a couple weeks back, or the Tanaka that shut those same Blue Jays down for seven shutout innings while striking out a career-high 15 batters in his final regular season start? Tanaka has been a better pitcher at home this season, which is a good sign for the Yankees, and a reality that is highlighted by those two performances against the Blue Jays that were just five days apart.

In Tanaka’s only career postseason start, he managed to grind through five innings while allowing two runs on a pair of solo home runs in a game where he received no run support. He may need to be much better than that for the Yanks to have a chance. Cleveland has hit Tanaka well, so he may need a repeat performance from the last week of the regular season.

As a team, the Indians are batting .349 with a .912 OPS against Tanaka. Carlos Santana is 4-for-13 with a dinger, while Francisco Lindor is 4-for-9 with a double in his abbreviated career against the righty. Edwin Encarnacion has been the biggest Tanaka killer, going 10-for-22 with a home run and two doubles against Tanaka, good for a 1.182 OPS. After what happened to Encarnacion last night, the Yankees might be off the hook, though.

These aren’t the type of numbers to cause any relief for Yankees fans, but we know Tanaka is capable of tossing a gem on any given night against any given team, just like he can throw a clunker at any moment. For the sake of the Yankees’ season, they better hope it’s not the latter.

What is working in favor of Tanaka is the fact that the Indians haven’t seen him since August of 2016, when he cruised through six innings while allowing one run and striking out eight. The 2016 version of Tanaka was much more dependable than this season, but maybe the long stretch in between appearances against Cleveland will work to Tanaka’s advantage.

We can dissect all the numbers and look at past performances and splits, but one thing is certain: Tanaka’s leash will be short. Much like Luis Severino in the Wild Card Game, Joe Girardi will turn things over to the bullpen at the first sign of trouble. Tanaka has always been a heavy competitor and wants to take the ball, but he will only go as far as his splitter takes him. It has taken him every which way so far this season.

Regardless of past and present, this start will play heavily into how Tanaka is remembered in New York, should he elect to test the free agent waters in the offseason. For now, his task is simple, but not easy: pitch the game of his career and keep the Yankees alive.